Three glasses of chardonnay, three progressive hues of citrus-tinged, wheat, and golden yellow, three napkin shrouded bottles adorned with rudely scribbled numbers.
When French guests arrive, it is fitting to organize a tasting or two, if you are lucky enough to have been offered a well-cushioned and strategically packed bottle.
A true Burgundian, Sara’s beau François didn’t stop at one. Reserving precious cargo space for pinot and chardonnay instead of superfluous clothing, he made his way through Charles de Gaulle security wearing an extra sweater and two jackets on his way to Louisville last week. His efforts made it all the more appropriate that they should host not one but multiple wine tastings while he was in town, and I, the adoring friend, was happy to take part.
So, after a very American dinner of burgers — accompanied nonetheless by an introductory glass of white wine in lieu of beer — Sara’s family and I find ourselves introduced to Glass 1, Glass 2, and Glass 3 (all chardonnay) by the smiling, soft spoken but assertive, Frenchman.
“First of all, let’s have a look at the color,” François suggests, his accent a melange of his native French and school-taught British English.
The table stirs with conversation; mention of colors gives way to contiguous reflections and questions. What does color mean in terms of chardonnay? Reminds me of wheat fields or mustard. Remember the yellow colza fields of Burgundy springtime?
François refrains from dominating the conversation with didactic discourse. It’s easy to see he is delighted by everyone’s interest. With dark eyes and dark hair, plus a fitted polo and tight black jeans, he is one you might peg as typically European. To hear his nearly flawless English flow into effortlessly gorgeous French further distinguishes him as coming from a traditional, cultured French family. It is no exaggeration to say his love for wine is not so much a personal passion as it is an ancestral legacy.
And yet, this traditional Frenchie has learned to appreciate more than burgers and Bud Lite over the course of his relationship with my friend Sara. He is highly, and might I say uncharacteristically, complimentary of American wine, and encouraging of our interest in learning about wine in general.
But back to color. “One of these is an American wine,” says François, “so its color might not help us when compared to the other two. The others are both Louis Latour Burgundies: a village level, and a Montagny Premier Cru. In that case, the color might tell us something.”
François reminds us that an older chardonnay will show darker color, but then adds that there is only one year of difference between the vintages of the two Burgundies. “Which is which?” he asks slyly.
At this point, we’ve all been swirling and sniffing. An overwhelming whiff of toasty vanilla leaves me (and my rookie wine student pride) gratified in declaring that Glass 1 must be the Kendall Jackson California Chardonnay.
The remaining two glasses have their own distinct complexities. Reactions to aromas from Glass 2 range from fingernail polish remover to baked apples, peaches, and a hint of port. After that strong nose, we all agree to a general difficulty in defining the aromas of Glass 3.
“It seems muted,” says Sara.
“Smell something else,” suggests François, lifting a homemade gougere to his nose.
Still, Glass 2 dominates our senses, intriguing some and alienating others of us. I have a preconceived notion that this powerful chard must be the premier cru.
When we taste the wines in succession, we all agree that Glass 1 is the California wine. It’s familiar to us. François nods neutrally.
Glass 2 again gets the most attention after its visit with our palates. Nutty and peachy, with that lasting taste of something like port, it is a rich wine and needs food to accompany it. I’m fairly certain it is the premier cru, especially when the closed, acidic third glass leaves us grasping at straws to come up with a description.
We go around the table, offering our final judgments and reasoning behind them. I stand alone in choosing Glass 2 as the premier cru. It is not until François offers his educated opinion, however, that my conviction falls by the wayside.
“I agree that Glass 1 is the Kendall Jackson,” he says simply and definitively, pushing the glass apart from the others as if to visually confirm its otherness.
“But the choice between the two Burgundies is more complicated, just like the wines in this case. Look at the color. Glass 2 is indeed the darkest of the three, which leads us to believe it is oldest. But remember that the Bourgogne is only one year older than the Montagny Premier Cru: this should not be enough to tell a difference. Furthermore, if Glass 3 is a premier cru, it would take longer to develop color, just as it would take longer to develop its aromas and taste. Glass 2, as you can tell, is complex and round and ready to drink now, but it is only five or six years old. It cannot age much longer, can it? Glass 3 is still acidic and mysterious. One might think this is a sign of lesser quality, but it could just as easily be an indication of immense quality and complexity that will not reveal itself for years to come.”
The table is silent as the lesson takes effect. Light bulbs are going off. Revelations over three glasses of wine.
Across from François, I nod my head. I am at once disappointed that the seemingly obvious had not occurred to me and impressed by François’ execution.
Sara’s sister breaks the respectful silence. “Can we unwrap them already?” she asks, pointing to the mummy-esque bottles.
François does the honors and confirms his suspicion. The table livens once again, reactions to the solution of the game leading to tangential conversations and reflections.
I sit back in my chair, letting the lesson sink in and vowing not to make the same mistake again. Not that I guessed incorrectly, but that I spoke too soon. With a bit more patience, perhaps I would have come to a similar conclusion. François’ explanation makes perfect sense, and I’ve heard it before. I had been convinced even before tasting it that the village level wine was premier cru caliber (and perhaps it was, since there is only so much wine that is allowed to be labeled “premier cru,” leaving many bottles to be “declassified” each year: subject for another post). Had my mind been closed to other possibilities by this preconceived notion? I’m sure it was.
Patience is a virtue, as they say. More than that, it’s probably the only key to unlocking the mysteries of wine.